David Barber: Review of Thulani Davis's My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots (New York: Basic Books, 2006)
Thulani Davis, journalist, novelist, and now, historian, is a sixth cousin to one of the most important antebellum Presidents, Tennessee’s James K. Polk. At least three of her great grandparents were members of some of the South’s great slaveholding families. One of her great-great uncles, Leonidas Campbell, was a Confederate Army officer and a man who succeeded to the Mississippi State legislature in the wake of his black predecessor’s lynching – on Campbell’s own plantation grounds. Still, it should come as no surprise that Ms. Davis is herself black and at least three of her great-grandparents were slaves. It should come as no surprise because Davis’s very tangled and intertwined ancestry of slaveowners and slaves is not so unusual. Indeed, as her My Confederate Kinfolk argues, such knotted relationships may be characteristic of the histories of millions of Americans today; which means, too, that this history, and its public denial, stand as a cornerstone of American history and of the ongoing problem of race we have in America to this day.
In My Confederate Kinfolk Davis centers her narrative on the life of her maternal great grandmother, Chloe Tarrant Curry, born a slave in 1850, and on the family of her maternal great grandfather, William Argyle Campbell, born in 1852 as the youngest son of a prominent slaveowning family. Chloe and Will began living together in the mid- to late-1870s, had a child, Georgia, Davis’s maternal grandmother, in 1878, and remained together until the time of Will’s death in 1902. Through the telling of the Curry and Campbell family story lines Davis seeks to reframe a popular understanding of American history, emphasize the centrality of the African American story and the power of African American culture to American history, and debunk the romanticism of a lost Southern civilization.
In accord with her book’s title, Davis spends the greater part of her book in tracing the lives of her Confederate kinfolk, that is, the white side of her family. In part, this may be because the documentary record is so much better for her white family: letters, diaries, property and court records, even county histories, offer Davis abundant sources for telling this side of her family history. But I also suspect that Davis puts the effort into researching this history precisely because these people – whatever they did with their lives, whatever racial animus they held, however much or little they took for granted the privileges accruing to them from their ownership over other human beings – these people were, nonetheless, family. And this is the first thing that Davis wants us to understand.
She puts considerable effort, for example, into following the lives of three Campbell women: her great-great grandmother, Louisa Terrill Cheairs Campbell; her great- great Aunt, Will’s sister, Sarah Rush Owen; and a cousin, Louisa Cheairs, “Lulu.” If I’m not mistaken, Davis finds something admirable in each of these women, despite their evident racial prejudices. Quite clearly, all three are strong women. Her great- great grandmother, for example, illegally and repeatedly crossed Union lines to bring medicines and materials to her Confederate uniformed sons, much of the time keeping a pair of grandchildren in tow. Early in the war, when she was compelled to host a dinner for Union officers in her Springfield, Missouri home, she was asked by a general whether she wished the Union forces success. “I am a Southern woman,” she replied. “And you have sons in the Confederacy?” he asked. “Four… and I wish they were fifty and I were leading them’ ” . Davis wants us to know that when we look at millions of African American people in this country we need to see a people shaped, not only genetically, but culturally, as the descendants of slaves and of slaveowners. Indeed, we see a people who, perhaps more than any other people, are quintessentially “American.”
Notwithstanding the energy Davis devotes to depicting her white relations My Confederate Kinfolk’s most important character is Chloe Tarrant Curry, Davis’s African American great grandmother. And she is important to Davis not because she represents the African American side of Davis’s family, but because she is incomparably strong and large of spirit. On her husband Will’s death in 1902 Chloe inherited the Campbell land, and successfully defended this inheritance against Will’s sister’s legal challenge, and this, in Mississippi at the nadir of African American life in the United States. Chloe became the matron of the extended Tarrant family, a woman, who, although she remained illiterate her entire life, funded the education of any Tarrant child willing to put in the effort.
Born in Alabama Chloe was still a teenager at the close of the Civil War. To help understand her great grandmother’s Alabama years, Davis draws on the journals of a Union Army chaplain, Elijah Edwards. Edwards had arrived in Selma, Alabama, twenty-odd miles from the Marion plantation where Chloe had been living, during the closing days of the war. From Edwards we get a powerful picture of what these days must have been like for Chloe and other African Americans at the time:
Soon as it was definitely known that Lee had surrendered the murder of negroes commenced. It seems as if the defeated could by turning upon the unhappy cause of all their reverses and shooting them in this way revenge themselves and keep up their feeling of superiority. The negroes have been shot down at sight in some neighborhoods. The policy of their murderers is to kill them since they cannot retain them as slaves .
Two months later, Edwards’s journal reports more of the same: “They still shoot Negroes and try to force others to work on their plantations asserting that there has never been any emancipation proclamation…. There is a class down here radically contumacious and barbarous .”
Chloe must have experienced this “radically contumacious and barbarous” class of landowners as a 15 year old. At 18 she married a former slave two years her senior, James Curry, and the two worked for a number of years as domestic servants, probably in the household of Chloe’s former masters, the Tarrants. In any case we definitely know that the two set off for Yazoo County, Mississippi in 1875, leaving four children in Alabama. Again, in the absence of evidence Davis can only speculate here as to the Currys’ motives. But one reasonable explanation is that as late as 1875 Mississippi was a better place for African American people than was Alabama, given the short-lived experiment in Reconstruction in Alabama, and the continued life of Reconstruction in Mississippi.
In Mississippi, Davis draws on Albert Morgan’s writings to depict Chloe’s environment. Morgan was himself an exceptional individual, a Union Army officer who stayed in the South after the Civil War, set up a plantation in Yazoo County, and hired free black labor to work his plantation. Treating these workers with dignity earned him the enmity of the region’s white landowners and the respect of the area’s black population. Because of the local landowners’ hatred Morgan was forced off the plantation he was renting and he became a leader of the Republican Party in Mississippi, serving in a variety of official capacities in the state. Davis’s book reminds us that men like Morgan, and Edwards, were the now forgotten honorable exceptions to white violence in the post-Civil War South. After Reconstruction’s defeat in Mississippi, Morgan would author a powerful account of his years in Mississippi: Yazoo; or On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South.
Morgan’s story is the story of the prolonged struggle over Reconstruction in Mississippi, and of its ultimate overthrow. Backed by the power of the Federal Government, Republicans in Mississippi had won four successive elections, largely with black votes. But Mississippi whites, with the former slaveowners in the lead, determined on resistance. Here we see in Morgan’s words what Chloe must have seen in Yazoo County, Mississippi: the white South’s refusal to accept the Civil War’s verdict. According to Morgan,
The greatest minds in the state, on the ‘superior side of the line,’ were gravely debating the question, which would be the wiser policy for the white man, emigration and the abandonment of the State to the negro, or a general rearming of the white race with the purpose of checking by force the ‘threatened supremacy’ of the negro race. To such persons these were the only alternatives .
In uncovering Chloe’s story, then, Davis must excavate a buried part of American history: the hatred, brutality, and violence that white Southerners used to destroy black rights following the Civil War. From Morgan, Davis learns for the first time of the organized planning that white Southerners, landowners first of all, put into overthrowing Mississippi’s Reconstruction government. In Yazoo, white leaders openly published their plans for overthrowing black rights during the election of 1875. Thus, Chloe and her husband, James Curry, arrived in Yazoo at the very moment that the Democrats were beginning their ultimately successful destruction of black rights.
But from Morgan, Davis gleans still more important information: the tremendous dignity and courage of Mississippi’s African American population. Morgan, writes Davis, “saw in those he met what I see in my great grandmother: energy, determination, incredible endurance, and ambition” . Davis especially brings these qualities to bear in the climax to My Confederate Kinfolk. Will Campbell had willed his estate to Chloe, and Will’s sister, Sarah Rush Owen, apparently sued Chloe to reclaim the property. Having lost the court battle – a white woman losing a law suit to a black woman in Mississippi in 1902! – Rush Owen bitterly penned a letter to Chloe’s attorneys challenging the illiterate black woman’s ability to retain the already debt encumbered estate. But, as Davis argues, this was “one contest in which the formidable Sarah was outmatched.” Says Davis:
If all Chloe had to do was stay there and raise cotton and pay those debts, Sarah would be waiting a very long time for Chloe to be crushed under the weight of it and repent, or pray for death, or whatever wish Sarah was trying to articulate in her letter…. As [Chloe’s daughter] Georgia wrote, work ‘was all that had confronted … [Chloe] all of her life.’ ….
That first harvest, whether 100 bales or 600, was an incredible victory over slavery, starvation, the loss of loved ones, and the terrible odds against many. It was a triumph for the bond between Chloe and Will and the promises people make to live on, to keep going what has been built, and to take care of those who need help. It’s the victory we have when we get another day to do the work that is ours to do, when we are allowed by good fortune to press body, mind, and soul to the a task we have actually chosen. Chosen, not by force of a whip, but by our own determination to win another day [267-268].
Davis’s book, in short, is a moving testimonial to the African American spirit. At the same time Davis’s choice of title, My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, underlines the incredible truth that American history is very much a family’s story, a family in which one part disowns, enslaves, and tramples upon the rights of the other part. And in the use of the term “freedwoman” to describe herself, Davis reminds us of one further truth: the history she recounts is far from over. Those of us wishing better to understand this history would do well to read Davis’s book.
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